Thursday, September 24, 2009

John Milton and Isaac Newton as 'Charismatic' Prophets

Obvious to anyone who has ever read Paradise Lost is the fact that John Milton considered himself something of a 'prophet' -- or at least a divinely inspired writer -- although he doesn't look especially 'charismatic' in this well-known image:

Rather more wild and woolly looking is the following image of Isaac Newton by Godfrey Kneller, painted in 1689 when Newton was 46 -- some 15 years after Milton's death in 1674 at age 65:

I've not kept up with the scholarship on Newton since I moved away from the history of science, but a lot has apparently been done on his more 'occult' interests. I don't recall him being described as a 'prophet' when I was at Berkeley in the early 1980s, but in a lecture given in 2008 on "Physics and History: Fractured in Modernity," John Heilbron had an interesting response to a question posed at about 54 minutes and 30 seconds into the video by a scientist who found incomprehensible that Newton would pour so much credulous energy into religious studies and who asked why Newton had done this sort of unbelievable work, to which John replied:
Well, I think Newton thought himself a prophet, and he took all knowledge as his sphere and was trying to recover what the ancients knew, and he felt that certain ancient texts required his particular study, mainly -- or among others -- the prophecies of Daniel, and he spent a lot of time trying to identify events subsequent to the prophecy that did occur with their prophetic description. That was part of his self-image. And to employ an analogy, from science you have the quantum Newton. You cannot have Newton the world-system builder, the mathematician -- the towering mathematician -- without Newton the prophet because they come together. They are responding to the same set of problems of the time in which he lived. And so for me, it's a puzzle indeed to think that a man had the energy to devote himself with such ferocity to so wide a range of subjects, but I'm not surprised at all that a mind as capacious as his would have wished, at that time, to undertake such studies. I decline the terms of the question insofar as it implies that we could have had Newton of the Principia without Newton of the Prophecies of Daniel or the Ancient Kingdoms Amended.
I found intriguing John's response that Newton thought himself a prophet, and I wondered if anyone had compared him to Milton, so I inquired on the Milton List:
I was struck by . . . [John Heilbron's] remark in response to a question from a scientist about Newton's 'other' interests . . . . [Heilbron] stated that Newton considered himself a "prophet." What struck me was the fact that Milton thought the same of himself. I wonder if anyone has written a comparison of Milton and Newton, for the former not only seems to have considered himself a prophet but busied himself in all areas of knowledge. Something about the 17th century seems to have driven individuals -- or Milton and Newton, anyway -- to attempt a regrounding of all knowledge. I suppose that it's part of that great historical process set in motion by the collapse of the Medieval worldview.
Professor Todd Butler, of Washington State University, directed me to a recent conference -- Newton: Milton, Two Cultures? (July 22, 2009 – July 24, 2009) -- that included a paper by Professor Stephen M. Fallon on "Milton and Newton: Harmonies and Dissonances." According to the "Abstract":
Coming to Isaac Newton from the perspective of immersion in Milton studies is a heady experience. One learns quickly that Newton, like Milton, is vast and complex. This paper's modest goal is to open some fruitful areas for conversation between Newton scholars and Milton scholars. Both Milton and Newton, as has been pointed out for some time, are quasi-Arians. Both downplay the importance of the atonement in Christian theology. Both think of themselves, though in significantly different ways, as prophets. Both are interested in origins and both write histories, though their relations to fathers and to the political symbolism of fathers are sharply opposed. Perhaps most surprising and interesting to scholars of Milton and of Newton will be the resonances between the two figures' understanding of body and space. Newton's ambivalent relation to the mathematical abstraction of space and bodies, as expressed in his interest in alchemy, recalls in surprising ways Milton's idiosyncratic views on matter and spirit.
This sounds fascinating, as do several other papers at the conference. It also, by the way, hints at why we should reject the so-called Whig histories of scientific progress -- insofar as they force us to divide into rigid categories of "truths" and "errors" the ideas that we find in the past. As John pointed out, we cannot have "Newton of the Principia without Newton of the Prophecies of Daniel or the Ancient Kingdoms Amended." That's partly what makes history fascinating.

And since both Milton and Newton considered themselves 'prophets', I think that applying Max Weber's analysis of charisma to these two towering figures might lead to some interesting insights since both were responding to the collapse of the Medieval worldview and were attempting to reconstruct a system of knowledge grounded in truth and therefore needed something to guarantee that truth. For them, that something would be God.

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At 6:05 AM, Blogger John B said...

Newton's scientific-religious viewpoint gets brief mention in NPR's Fresh Air interview with author Karen Armstrong on 9/21. It comes up around 15'30".

Thought I would mention it since I listened to it right after seeing your post.

At 6:06 AM, Blogger Eshuneutics said...

Yes, what an exciting idea! I really enjoyed this post. I remember going to Newton's home at Woolsthorpe, a strange place, so plain, its emptiness seems to evoke a mind filled with space. There was a curious tapestry in one of the rooms of Hermes (god of alchemy) with his pastoral flocks. I have always wondered if this was Newton's or just a bit of dressing done by the house's owners. But luck or not, the image was right. I recall reading a series of essays, one of which related the star REGULUS of alchemy to Newton's concept of universal structure and laws. Jung also asserted (in his work on the Transformation) evidence that scientific theories are germinated by archetypal dreams and patterns, such that the poet and scientist are of "one imagination compact". The cross-over between poetry and science, in terms of metaphor, is still not done well in Milton. I discussed this once with WB Hunter: Milton's Galileo as Hermetic messenger, crossing the boundaries of poetry and science. Do write more...

At 6:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, John, for the link. Interesting that Newton's views on design would be ridiculed these days as unscientific . . . but that's the way history seems to work.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:01 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, if you go to the link to the conference on Milton and Newton, you'll find an abstract of a presentation on Hermes Trismegistus in the thought of Newton and Milton . . . though that might have little to do with the 'real' Hermes.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:28 AM, Anonymous erdal said...

Your last paragraph struck some note here: I know next to nothing about Milton but I have some sort of biased familiarity with Newton: namely, through Goethe's antagonism. I've always wondered why Goethe was so agitated by Newton's "Optics" to fight such a long lasting crusade agains Newton. Of course Goethe messed around with the subject himself and came to wildly different conclusions (which, from a scientific point of view, eventually turned out to be pure nonsense), but the animus always sounded deeper than a mere divergence of views about the nature of light. Maybe Goethe, who was as perceptive as they come, sensed the "prophet" in Newton, a type he deeply resented, for his own ideals were not only pre-christian (he fancied himself as Jupiter, I gather) and post-christian (which led, ironically, to him being called "the prophet of civics" by his contemporaries) but specifically "anti-prophet", which led himself to become a sort of aestheticised pantheistic agnostic.

In another set of nice ironies, both Newton and Goethe are these days frequently claimed as Muslims by those who have made a sport out of converting dead celebrities - the former because of his quasi-arianic views and the latter because he wrote a bitter satire (un-recognized today by those who claim him for Islam) about the insolence of prophets, where he picked Mohammed as a prototype because that was the least dangerous choice in his day...

At 11:10 AM, Anonymous erdal said...

Something else: I think it was Marx who said that the inablility of atheist philosophiy and science to solve the despair about reason that they suddenly found themselves in, inevitably led the Englishmen both back into medieval belief and forward into skeptical empiricism, while the Germans in the same situation tended forward toward pantheism and back into idealistic mysticism, pregnant with worship of hero and genius. The case of Newton and Goethe appears to bear that out, with both being ahead of their times. Of course, Marx thought both approaches to be doomed. His ideas haven't turned out to be any better, though.

At 3:28 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Erdal, thanks for the information and insights. I've read Goethe's Faust -- in German, even! -- but I was only 21 and still naive, so I didn't pick up on his views.

Jeffery Hodges

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